nêhiyawak: Respecting tradition, blazing trails and community diversity

Monday 13th, March 2017 / 18:23


By Brittany Rudyck


nêhiyawak embed “catchy numbers” with thoughtful oomph.
Photo: Conor McNally

EDMONTON – One of the first things nêhiyawak’s Marek Tyler did when BeatRoute visited Edmonton’s Aviary venue one balmy February afternoon was offer tea. The smell of sweetly pungent smudge was present in the air and the space felt homey and comfortable. We opted to set up in the back room where the band rehearses two to three times a week. As Tyler moved around the space organizing gear and setting up for the post conversation jam, we reflected personally on growing up in Saskatchewan and other geographical similarities.

The Cree word nêhiyawak directly means plains people, or people of the plains, pronounced: neh-Hee-o-wuk, with an emphasis on the second syllable. BeatRoute learned as the interview went on, the word and its meaning weighs heavily on the band as they navigate the musical landscape, as well as their relationships with elders, youth and the community at large.

Kris Harper (guitar) and Matthew Cardinal (bass) walked through the doors shortly after we settled. Once we each had a glass of tea in hand Tyler was quick to begin the interview process eagerly seeking out the first question. His natural curiosity and apparent desire to know more about his band mates’ thoughts and ideas permeated our entire conversation.

The band’s openness with each other and what they approach in terms of art is a refreshing attitude to witness. Harper and Tyler are cousins from the Onion Lake Cree Nation with just enough age difference to have missed a close relationship growing up. It was 2003 when the two first recorded music together and was also when the idea of forming a band was hatched, but it wasn’t until a decade later that the band would truly form with Cardinal joining the cousins after only a few jams as a duo.

“I remember the first time playing together and feeling something special,” Tyler recalls. “It felt nice; like there was a spark. But then two or three jams in, Matthew joined us and it felt right. Kris had a few songs in the bag, but told us that nothing was set in stone and the songs were still young. That’s a really neat place to be, a fertile place to be. Matthew has a beautiful sense of sound and approach to music. It felt good right away but we’re still getting to know each other.”

The natural chemistry between the trio is noticeable in the first two tracks nêhiyawak has released on their Bandcamp page. The first release, “Tommaso,” is an expansive, love infused indie rock ballad with atmospheric yet catchy hooks that sounds similar to early Stills songs. The lyrics are decidedly intellectual, exploring the relationship between Michelangelo and his assistant Tommaso. Their second release “Disappear” was greatly inspired by a lecture given by Bertha Oliva and Robert Lovelace.

One of the great things about Harper’s writing style is he leaves each song up for further discussion and research, if the listener is open to it. “Fats Domino made a song [called] ‘Walkin’ to New Orleans’ which is a catchy number,” Harper explains. “In reality there were only two groups of people who walked to New Orleans so to a lot of people it will remain just a catchy number. For those who are interested it can go a lot deeper. That’s the same for us. There will hopefully be some catchy numbers on the upcoming album but for those who want more, there will be a lot of ideas to spur interest. Lots of the ideas are in direct reference to indigenous culture, some are not. I’ll try to reference my material in everything we print.”

nêhiyawak recorded their first three songs on Vancouver Island with Colin Stewart, who has recorded notable artists Black Mountain and The New Pornographers. Stewart’s home studio is just north of Victoria and provides a luscious backdrop to “hide out and drink a lot of tea.” Surrounded by 80 ft. trees and near the ocean it seemed to be the perfect place to create their first full length album which is still very much in its infancy. “Colin gets it,” Tyler says of his longtime friend and producer. “We all come from an indie rock background. I’ve worked with him on a bunch of albums and I trust the guy. He has no fear and he’s respectful. We’re bringing in something that’s a bit different and he makes good decisions with it. I trust him.”

During our conversation, Harper also mentioned the notion that the band’s voice is slightly more feminine in nature, which comes from an ideal in indigenous culture that women are at the forefront of decision-making. “I could never really feel like I’m bringing forth that much of a new idea. We’re still representing ourselves as three male individuals on stage. That’s not very new musically or sonically per se,” explains Harper. “But I do think what we’re trying to say and trying to involve in ourselves and the circles we’re trying to meander through are very different than those kind of male dominated scenes. I feel like that idea of women being the focal point of the conjecture, the ideas, the ideologies is not necessarily being represented here but we need to acknowledge and allow space for a voice that’s not our own.”

Adding further clarity to that thought, Tyler continued, “We ask for guidance from our youth and from our elders on how to do this in a respectful way and bring them into the circle. If we live in an echo chamber, a vacuum, it becomes really fake, really quick. There’s a reciprocity that is really important in what we do. I love the process of learning from each other; it’s more than just a band. It feels like there’s something we need to say.”

nêhiyawak are also eagerly awaiting the release of a documentary this spring by local filmmaker Connor McNally called ôtênaw, which they designed the score for. The film captures the storytelling of Edmonton educator Dwayne Donald, who keeps the multi-faceted layers of history within Treaty 6 land alive.

“We haven’t recognized all these places of burial or where we’re coming from on this land. We walk on the history every day. It’s heavy. It was very enlightening to be part of this project and hear Dwayne speak,” added Harper.

“Before we did the music, we saw the first cut of the documentary then went on one of the walks the movie is about. We were told about paintings and the idea of everything being as multi layered as a canvas being repainted over and over again. It was a great way of thinking about the land we’re on,” Tyler concluded with a smile, “we’re just a snapshot on one of those layers. It gave me a bit of perspective and respect for before and after this blip in history.”


Catch nêhiyawak at Fort Edmonton Park March 17th as part of Stories on the Hills. Their third single, Starlight, comes out the same day on Bandcamp.

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